From hope to horror: The legacy of the ‘Arab spring’
Beirut - The “Arab spring” has turned into a botched and bloody affair. Four years after the wave of protests shook the Middle East, the countries of the region are faring badly. Only in Tunisia, where it all started, has there been a successful revolution.
Syria’s secular revolution saw the rise of radical groups and the emergence of the Islamic State (ISIS), which expanded from Syria’s northeast into Iraq. In Libya, the killing of Muammar Qaddafi was followed by the dismemberment of the country with a flurry of militias turning on one another.
Yemen, it would seem, is following the footsteps of Syria. The rise of the long-marginalised Houthis rapidly morphing into a proxy conflict between the region’s major powers — Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Finally, in Egypt, the revolutionary movement that brought much hope was halted by the Muslim Brotherhood’s brief moment of power and followed by a military takeover.
In this complex framework, where violence is rampant, schemes of regime change aimed at replacing tyranny with democracy have failed for the most part. The resulting anarchy has allowed jihadists to flourish while Iran has exploited the regional anarchy to promote its ambitions.
The revolution in Syria has led to that country tearing itself apart. In June 2014, ISIS, born from the ashes of al-Qaeda in Iraq, overran Mosul, one of Iraq’s largest cities, after taking over Raqqa in Syria.
ISIS relies on a mixture of state governance and criminal organisation methods. In areas it controls, it has been building a semi-state by imposing its own interpretation of security and extreme sharia law, levying taxes and managing schools and hospitals. At the same time, it operates like a transnational criminal organisation, using extortion, kidnapping for ransom, robbing banks and seizing oil wells and natural gas fields to amass funds.
The group has accumulated wealth far greater than any other jihadist organisation. Its media savvy and highly adaptable military structure will be difficult to eliminate in Syria by solely relying on a bombing campaign, rather than intervention on the ground.
The organisation has spread its tentacles to other regions. In Libya, the overthrow of long-time despot Muammar Qaddafi produced a complete collapse of government. An Islamic emirate has been declared in Derna, where people were reportedly forced to pledge allegiance to the terror organisation.
ISIS, unknown in Libya before the summer of 2014, is expanding, relying on a totalitarian strategy and brutal methods. It turned the December 2014 execution of Egyptian Christians and the slaughter of 30 Ethiopian Christians in April into global media events. ISIS is also wreaking havoc in Tunisia and Yemen, where it was behind recent terror attacks.
ISIS is not the only winner in the bloody chess game being played out across the region. Iran’s early military intervention in Syria, first through its Lebanese proxy Hezbollah, followed by Iraqi and Afghani Shia militias, has allowed Bashar Assad to remain in power.
As his military resources have been largely depleted, Assad is increasingly reliant on foreign militias. His survival has come at a high cost because he has had to surrender his autonomy to Iran, becoming another pawn in Tehran’s hands.
In Yemen, Iran’s expanding clout has been inspired by tactics that made it the regional power in Lebanon. Tehran has adopted the grievances of the Shia Houthis, which initially included economic and social marginalisation as well as government corruption, to extend its influence.
The minority Houthis, who belong to the Zaydi branch of Shia Islam, represent about 30% of Yemen’s population. The movement, believed to be partly financed by Iran, seized Sana’a in September in a rise to power that has torn Yemen apart.
This was perceived as an Iranian victory. In March, General Hussein Salami, deputy commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, boasted that “the Islamic Revolution has influenced states and people from the Mediterranean Sea to the Bab el Mandeb in Yemen.”
The regional chaos has caused a shift in the balance of power. Constant US flip-flops, Washington’s contradictory approach in Syria and Iraq amid nuclear negotiations with Tehran, has allowed Iran to expand its sphere of influence much to the dismay of Sunni Arab powers.
This appears to have emboldened the Sunni powers of the Gulf. In March, they forcefully intervened in Yemen to restore the government of President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi, as well in Syria, where they have beefed up their support to mostly Islamic rebel groups.
It’s clear that ISIS’s methodical savagery on one hand and Iranian hubris on the other is going to wreak greater havoc across the region, pushing it into a brutal sectarian war.